Listening to music while driving will kill you?

Can listening to music while driving kill you

Researchers say we can’t listen to music and drive safely… so why do cars have radios? We dig through the research to find out if listening to music while driving will kill you.

Type “driving songs” into Google and literally tens of thousands of suggestions appear. It seems we all have our favourite driving music; and we all know that music can affect our mood. I mean, music soothes the savage beast, right?

But just how do music and driving go together? Is music necessary when driving? Can it hinder your performance at the wheel? Or can it actually make you a better driver?

To find out the crew at MotoFomo took to the interwebs and started reading research papers on the subject from people who, well, are a lot smarter than us. It seems these highly-intelligent folks have proven a direct and discernible link between the style of music, and even the volume of music played, and the effect it has on our ability to safely drive a car.

We start with a look at music on its own. It seems innocuous enough, after all, cars have radios, right? But just how does music affect the brain of a driver tasked with operating a car, interacting with other road-users, and remembering the road rules at any given time?

According to a 2018 research paper by Seyedeh Maryam Fakhr Hosseini
from the Michigan Technological University, driving is a complicated task we often take for granted. Yep, that’s something anyone who commutes to work will agree with and no doubt ranted about on said commutes.

Hosseini’s study, entitled “How Angry Drivers Respond to Emotional Music”, found the coordination of the visual and sensory-motor skills required when driving is influenced by both internal and environmental factors, and music is just one of the many contributors to our emotional state behind the wheel.

The premise of her argument centres on inattention, or specifically “auditory distraction”. It’s proffered that when a driver focuses their attention on what Hosseini calls “driving-irrelevant auditory signals” (read: music) they are less likely to commit to the task of driving safely.

It seems music and its ability to “elicit emotion and change the mood” can make an agitated driver angrier in much the same way a relaxing piece of classical music, for example, can calm someone down. But even classical music at too-loud a volume can be a killer.

Hosseini, and a number of other researchers, say loud music adds to the “cognitive load” of the driver, irrespective of the genre of music played. In terms you and I might understand, it means the more things we have to listen to, the more impaired our ability to drive a car becomes.

Hosseini states music is an “additional irrelevant stimuli [which] contributes to cognitive overload, especially when there are not enough available cognitive resources to attend all the demands of the task”. 

Her theory is supported by both a 1999 study by Beh and Hirst, and again by a 2012 research paper by Dr. Ayça Berfu Ünal from the University of Groningen. Both state the volume of music played increases our response time to “peripheral signals in high-demand conditions”. In short, loud music may mean the difference between noticing that red light, or sailing into the side of a school bus.

According to Dr. Ünal: “high-intensity (loud) music is more likely to engage our attention, and therefore overlap with attentional requirements of the primary driving task, which will result in driving performance decrements”. Again, for you and I, that means loud music makes driving bad.

Dr. Ünal’s study determined that loud music increased the mental effort required by the driver in all driving situations – and that’s even before we consider that you can’t hear a horn or emergency services siren when the tunes are really pumping. Dr. Ünal’s belief is that drivers “regulate their mental effort such that they cognitively compensate for the distracting effects of music”. Or, the louder the music, the harder we need to concentrate.

Now as someone who has spent most of their life behind handle-bars or a steering wheel of one contraption or another I confess I usually always have the stereo on. Digital streaming services, podcasts and digital radio have benefitted the time I spend behind the wheel greatly. They relieve boredom, and make the drive more enjoyable. A more enjoyable drive is a safer drive as far as I’m concerned, and it would seem my driving history proves it. 

But what do you think? Will loud music be the death of us all? Or are there other critical factors we’re ignoring in our efforts to make the road a safer place? We’d love to hear from you – see you in the comments.

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